Mary Timony's new project Ex Hex makes the best case possible for listening to that urge to simplify on Rips.
Somewhere along the line, there comes a point in time when the urge to simplify pulls at you, no matter what skills you've mastered or how much experience you've gained. Who knows if that's the motivation behind Mary Timony's new project Ex Hex, but the end result on her trio's first album Rips makes a good case for taking that kind of mindset. For Timony, known for her '90s feminist-rock band Helium and, more recently, for making Wild Flag a supergroup instead of a Sleater-Kinney offshoot, Ex Hex seems to represent an opportunity to uncomplicate her music: Rips is a lean-and-mean set of catchy, classics-indebted indie tracks, a fairly decisive departure for someone noted for being a guitar heroine who's fluent in complex vernaculars like post-punk and renaissance-faire folk, math-rock and space-rock.
So Rips may not be exactly where you thought the path would lead Timony more than two decades after she started out in the D.C. punk underground, but it's a twist in the road that she's apparently comfortable pursuing. As Timony explained in a recent interview, Ex Hex "is the most fun band I’ve ever been in" -- and it shows on the thoroughly enjoyable Rips. Indeed, whatever Rips is missing in the way of Timony's intricate, proficient guitar play and her fantastical, high-concept songwriting is made up for with irrepressible energy and good vibes. That's what stood out about Ex Hex when it introduced itself to the world early this year with the teaser single "Hot and Cold", that an established artist with an identifiable style like Timony could seem so recharged and buoyed by downsizing her musical palette. Boasting strutting riffs and snagging hooks, "Hot and Cold" evokes Timony's most approachable work with Helium, just with a more compact and direct approach. Yet even without the delicate medieval curlicues and interstellar trips of her most challenging Helium compositions, Timony still puts on a virtuoso guitar performance here as she moves easily and fluidly from choppy, chugging leads to languorous, almost blues-like lines, then back again.
"Hot and Cold" basically provides the blueprint that's reproduced time and again with the punk-pop nuggets on Rips, but the album as a whole never feels redundant or gets samey because Timony, bassist Betsy Wright, and drummer Laura Harris launch into their songs about making difficult relationships less so with such relish and camaraderie. Kicking off the album to ringing glam riffs, opener "Don't Wanna Lose", like "Hot and Cold", calls forth Timony's signature sound in a more streamlined way, working with the angular, slightly minor-key guitar tone that's been her trademark, but taking a bit of the edge off and stretching things out into a roaring power-pop solo. The vibrant feel of the music here matches Timony's surprisingly lively vocals, which come off more outwardly directed and assured than ever when she asserts, "I'm not gonna stay down / Goodbye to dark days that surround." That attitude adjustment is even more apparent on "Beast", with its bar-rocking guitar blasts wrapped up in blues-y interludes that get across a sense of swagger and confidence. And when Timony sings on "Beast", "When you count on nothing / Nothing falls apart," it's as if she's imparting hard-earned Zen wisdom, turning wry dark humor on its head into a glass-half-full sentiment in as succinct a way as possible.
That's a good way to put the moral of the story on Rips, that nothing's falling apart on you when you're not overcomplicating and overthinking what should come naturally. Again, Rips as an album is just as Timony described Ex Hex as a band, simply about music being fun. It's a sense that comes through in the exuberance Ex Hex takes to repurposing familiar and recognizable power-pop and new wave moves, then making them all the band's own. So even when the woozy guitar lines and Timony's cadence recall the Cars on "Waste Your Time" or the Wright-penned "Radio On" offers an endearing homage to the Modern Lovers, Ex Hex gets away with brushing up against obvious influences because there's a spirit to the execution that make the songs feel original and individual. It's that kind of positive energy that conveys what a good time Timony must be having on Rips, like when she's trying out a driving, Buzzcocks-esque melody on the power-punk number "You Fell Apart" or breaking down Sonic Youth-styled shredding to its rock essence on "War Paint", somehow playing both the Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo roles at the same time.
Although Mary Timony's legacy as one of indie rock's most resourceful and ingenious guitarists was already set with or without Ex Hex, Rips actually ends up adding to her reputation precisely because she performs like she's got nothing left to prove or lose with it. Rips only goes to show that you can sometimes push ahead further without trying to at all.